“you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”
When asking about controversial or polarizing figures in the great American past time, one does not have to reach too far to find them. It is a game obsessed with legacy and history, propping up heroes and tearing down villains, and a quick drive across state lines in some parts of the country can have very different roles for the same players. In most cases, arrogance and greed can spawn a character of such revile that the very legacy they are attempting to craft can crumble right before their eyes (See: Barry Bonds, however, that’s another post for another time). However, one could argue that once in a while (or even more rare than that), we as fans do all that work for a player. As a society, we crave someone to look to as an example for future generations, wether it be politics, art, music, or sports. Sometimes, rather than show the patience it takes for that person to emerge, we simply slap the “icon” tag on what we surmise as the next best thing, not taking a moment to think of the destruction we may be causing in the future not just for this cultural sacrificial lamb, but for ourselves as well.
Baseball is a product of a society that surrounds it. At the turn of the 20th century, baseball was an escape from hard labor. This created driven, hardened men willing to take nickels to play a game as opposed to pennies shoveling coal. The 70’s and 80’s were the age of flamboyance and excess, which brought on the Pete Rose, Bobby Bonds, and Reggie Jackson characters. In the 90’s, it was about repaying the debt to the fans the players and owners had run up, so legacy and class became the emphasis. Throughout all of these ties, the common thread becomes the gradual disconnection between the players and fans. Those who did know the players salaries didn’t care, because it wasn’t that much more than theirs. Free Agency was introduced in the 70’s but didn’t really gain legs until the 2000’s when the dollar figures started to balloon out of control. Now a quick google search will tell you how many millions of dollars a player signed for, and once you put that much information at the fingertips of the general public, then give them an avenue to the player itself, all of a sudden the conversation changes virtually over night. In the modern age, we are a society with more distractions than interests, and the methodical pace of baseball is falling by the wayside of the frantic intensity of football, among other sports.
This all leads us to the scapegoat for all of the above mentioned factors: Alex Rodriguez.
Before the year 2000, the sports world turned their heads to Texas, where the struggling Rangers handed out the biggest contract in sports history. Over the course of 10 years, they would pay Alex Rodriguez $252 Million. The next closest sports contract in history was about $63 million short, and didn’t even come from the same sport, so as one can imagine, expectations were high. This is always a tough situation for a player, especially the one that A-Rod was walking in to: A last place team with a generally uninterested fan base is asking for half your career and is going to pay you more than anyone ever. Now don’t mess up! This, I believe, is where the beast was created. By all means, he was the best player in the game, but all of a sudden, that wasn’t good enough for us. His contract was utterly dominant, endless in it’s enormity, so the baseball world demanded a performance that matched, all while holding the “BUST” signs behind our backs, itching to throw it on him. I think it would be unfair for us to shun him for trying to live up to these flawless standards in a flawed game by any means necessary, and honestly, taking some pills doesn’t seem that extreme…
“Taking steroids IS cheating, so obviously, A-Rod is a cheater, and should be held just as accountable as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, or Barry Bonds.” I don’t think this is all together wrong, but I would argue that it’s not entirely genuine to paint it with that broad of a brush. Baseball’s history is far to convoluted to allow such a single line of consistent fairness from generation to generation, whether it be internal or external factors. If steroids had been around during the time of Ruth, I would be willing to bet those home runs wouldn’t have stopped at 715. If Ty Cobb had to play against black players, his average wouldn’t be .367. I think we can put steroids in a similar context, and allow those who have already been sacrificed (Bonds, Palmerio, Piazza, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa) take the brunt, and let this one slide. I don’t want another miserable march to an unreachable milestone by someone America just can’t get behind. Baseball deserves to actually enjoy the sort of mythic feats that are accomplished in it’s respective generation, and I think we’ve proven our point already with Barry Bonds.
So while I would stop short of pleading for sympathy for Alex Rodriguez (I mean, he is sort of a dick), I would instead plead for a certain degree of immunity. Not because we like him or because he embodies all that’s great in the modern game, but because we need to acknowledge to ourselves that we are not perfect. We won’t make ourselves miserable because of our unfounded need to hold everyone to the same impeccable standards, and we will never get it totally right.
He’s still a tool though.